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2011 College Football Season Preview: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

2010 Record: (2-10, 2-6 in Sun Belt)

Head Coach: Willie Taggart (2-10 in one season at WKU)


9/1: at Kentucky (2010 result: lost 63-28)

9/10: Navy (2009 result: lost 38-22)

9/17: Indiana State

10/1: Arkansas State (2010 result: won 36-35 OT)

10/6: at MTSU (2010 result: lost 27-26)

10/15: at FAU (2010 result: lost 17-16)

10/22: Louisiana (2010 result: won 54-21)

10/29: at Louisiana-Monroe (2010 result: lost 35-30)

11/5: FIU (2010 result: lost 28-21)

11/12: at LSU

11/19: at North Texas (2010 result: lost 33-6)

11/26: Troy (2010 result: lost 28-14)

2010 Offensive Statistics:

Scoring: 22.8 ppg (6th in Sun Belt, 90th in Nation)

Rushing Yds/Game: 174.58 yds/game (4th in Sun Belt, 35th in Nation)

Passing Yds/Game: 143.5 yds/game (last in Sun Belt, 115th in Nation)

Total Yds/Game: 318.1 yds/game (8th in Sun Belt, 98th in Nation) 

2010 Defensive Statistics:

Scoring: 33.2 ppg (8th in Sun Belt, 99th in Nation)

Rushing Yds/Game: 178.08 yds/game (5th in Sun Belt, 86th in Nation)

Passing Yds/Game: 202.1 yds/game (4th in Sun Belt, 36th in Nation)

Total Yds/Game: 380.2 yds/game (2nd in Sun Belt, 67th in Nation)

2010 Misc Stats:

Turnover Margin: +0.25 per game (2nd in Sun Belt, 42nd in Nation)

Penalties: 46.3 yds/game (2nd in Sun Belt, 41st in Nation)

Returning Starters:

Offense: 7

Defense: 8

Kicker/Punter: 2

Top Returning Statistical Leaders:

Passing: QB Kawaun Jakes, Jr (149 of 291 for 1680 yds, 10 TD, 6 INT)

Rushing: RB Bobby Rainey, Sr (340 for 1649 yds, 15 TD)

Receiving: Marcus Vasquez, Jr (30 rec for 332 yds, 3 TD)

Tackles: DB Ryan Beard, Sr (71)

Sacks: DL Quanterus Smith, Jr (4)

Interceptions: DB Derrius Brooks, Sr (3)

Western Kentucky is still a team that is in it's infancy as an FBS team. They started play in Division 1 only three seasons ago. So far they have a 4-32 record in those three seasons. Is this the season that WKU can start to break-thru in the Sun Belt conference? Last season under new coach Willie Taggart they showed improvement in some areas and increased their win total by two over the previous year. Maybe the most impressive change was their drastic reduction in turnovers.

In 2009 they turned the ball over 28 times but in 2010 they turned it over just half that many times. By doing this they reduced their 2009 turnover margin from -12 to +3, which is a huge turnaround. While they did give up 33.2 points per game, WKU came in second in the Sun Belt in yards allowed. We caught up with the Bowling Green Daily News Beat Writer for WKU, Nick Baumgardner, to get his take on the 2011 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Make sure you check out Nick's blog and also follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.

Western Kentucky has only won 4 games over the last 3 years but did see a 2 game improvement last year. What are the biggest issues that still need to be corrected for Western Kentucky to be more competitive?

The overall level of depth and experience at the FBS level is still something WKU is trying to build. Two years ago, the Hilltoppers probably had a handful of 1A-level talent on their two-deep. Now, that cupboard is much more full – but the problem is, that talent is made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores. WKU played a ton of true freshmen in 2010 and will likely do so again in 2011, and with that, will come the fair share of growing pains. From an on-field production standpoint, WKU needs to get its quarterback (Kawaun Jakes) and its receivers more acclimated to coach Willie Taggart's West Coast system. The run game was special last season with running back Bobby Rainey, but the passing game looked pretty confused at times – making things pretty one-dimensional. 

Since joining the FCS in 2008 what areas have the Hilltoppers improved the most?

The overall level of on-field talent has gone up exponentially since 2008 on the WKU roster. In 2007, the Hilltoppers played their first season of transitional ball with basically an entire roster of 1-AA players. That was basically the case once again in 2009. Willie Taggart's hiring has brought about a major change in WKU's overall recruiting approach. The team has had the top-ranked recruiting class in the Sun Belt over the past two seasons under Taggart, and is now competing for higher-caliber players nationally. 

For those that don't follow the Sun Belt that closely...who are the players to watch on this team?

The straw that stirs the drink, so to speak, at WKU is senior running back Bobby Rainey. Rainey finished third in all of the FBS in rushing yards per game last season with 137.4. His 1,649 yards last season was the second-highest single-season total ever at WKU, and his 340 rushing attempts was No. 1 in the country and a school record. He was named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, despite playing on a 2-10 team – and is one of the most valuable offensive pieces in the entire league. Rainey was a one-man gang at times last season, and that can't be the case again this year if WKU wants to improve. 

Looking at the schedule, what are the most important games this year?

At first glance, the season-opener against Kentucky at LP Field in Nashville is yet another chance for WKU to make a splash against a BCS-conference school – something the team has had plenty of opportunities against, but came up empty each time. Outside of that, every single Sun Belt game is important moving forward. WKU is a threat in the Sun Belt in basically every other sport – except football. When the Hilltoppers entered the FBS and began to make the transition into the league, many wondered how long it would take before they became a major player in football as well. So far, that has in no way happened. WKU competed wire-to-wire in basically every league game last season, and for the program to take the next step, it needs to be a major competitor in its own league. 

What is the one game on the schedule that the fanbase wants to win the most this year?

I'd say it's a tie – Kentucky and Middle Tennessee are the two that will draw the most interest. Kentucky because of the in-state ties, and the chance to beat an SEC opponent. And Middle Tennessee because of the natural rivalry in all other sports. 

What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2011 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?

It's hard for me to say how the season will go simply because WKU is still in the early stages of its development – but that buffer period is all but over in my opinion. This will be the third year of full-fledged FBS membership, meaning that the time to take a big step forward is now. In order for this season to be a success, I feel that WKU needs to win at least five games – or possibly finish even and bowl eligible at 6-6. That may be a big challenge, but I feel like anything less than that would be a blow and would give the fanbase a sense that the program is basically spinning its wheels. 

Next Preview: Minnesota

2011 Team Previews

C-USA- East Carolina, Houston, SMU, Southern Mississippi

Independent- Army

MAC- Ball St, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Temple, Toledo

MWC- New Mexico, UNLV, Wyoming

Sun Belt- FAU, FIU, Louisiana, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Troy, ULM

WAC- Idaho, San Jose St


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